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Mike Isabella settles federal lawsuit with employee who alleged sexual harassment

Mike Isabella at the then-future site of his food emporium at Tysons Galleria in 2016. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)

This article has been updated. 

Lawyers for Mike Isabella and his partners have settled a lawsuit filed in federal court by a former employee who alleged that she was sexually harassed on the job, according to a joint statement. The financial terms of the settlement between Chloe Caras and Isabella’s restaurant company, Mike Isabella Concepts, are confidential, the statement says.

“In settling this case, Ms. Caras met one of her central goals, which was to have MIC enter in a binding agreement obligating it to take corrective measures, including robust training, and to adopt policies to encourage a work environment free of sexual harassment,” Debra Katz, the attorney for Caras, said in the statement. Caras had alleged that Isabella and his partners called her “bitch” and “whore,” commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission.

Mike Isabella’s restaurants used nondisclosure agreements to silence sexual harassment accounts, new lawsuit alleges

Isabella said in the statement: “This agreement allows Chloe to focus on her bright future, and allows us to focus on a future in which all our valued employees will continue to flourish in our management ranks as we remain positive, productive leaders in the D.C. restaurant community. I am happy to personally guarantee that we will strengthen our internal policies and practices and ensure all MIC employees work in a comfortable environment.”

The statement was sent to The Washington Post by Demetry Pikrallidas, the lawyer for Nick and George Pagonis, brothers who are partners in MIC and who were named in the suit. “The joint statement will be the extent of the communications regarding the matter,” wrote Pikrallidas. He declined to respond to further questions.

The settlement does not include any changes of management at Mike Isabella Concepts, according a person familiar with the case, who spoke anonymously because the source was not in a position to speak publicly on the matter. This apparently means that, unlike other disgraced celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali in New York City and John Besh in New Orleans, Isabella will remain in control of his company despite the allegations of sexual harassment.

Batali and Besh, by contrast, both stepped down from daily operations with their companies. Unlike Isabella, who has denied the allegations, both Batali and Besh apologized for their behavior. ABC fired Batali as co-host of the weekday talk show, “The Chew,” and Eataly, the massive Italian food emporium with multiple locations, pulled all Batali products from the shelves, even though the chef has a minor stake in the business. Joe Bastianich is reportedly negotiating a buyout of Batali from Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.

Isabella has been hurt professionally since the lawsuits were filed. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington disqualified Isabella’s restaurants from its annual award ceremony, the RAMMYs. (Chef Michael Rafidi, who resigned from Requin restaurant after the suit was filed, remains eligible in the category Rising Star of the Year.) Isabella’s longtime publicist, Jennifer Resick Williams, ended her professional relationship with him. The Washington Nationals cut all ties with him and have replaced his ballpark stands with other operators. The website Eater removed Isabella’s restaurants from its lists and maps. And The Post’s Tom Sietsema wrote that after Rafidi left, he decided not to include Isabella’s restaurant Requin from his Spring Dining Guide.

But Isabella remains firmly atop the org chart at MIC. His partners, including Johannes Allender, chief financial officer, and Taha Ismail, beverage director, will also apparently remain with the company. One former investor, who spoke anonymously because he’s pursuing legal options against MIC, said that Isabella has survived the crisis because of the way his company is set up. Most investors have only small stakes in a restaurant, the source said, and they have no say in how the business is run.

What’s more, the source said, these investors don’t want to have their names associated with a sexual harassment case, so they have remained quiet. It’s not worth the fight when investors may have as little as $5,000 at risk. “Mike’s still a very powerful guy,” he said. “They’re like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to cross him.'”

In Caras’s suit, she also alleged that managers frequently sent her explicit text messages and commented on the physical appearance of her and other women. She was fired, she says, on Dec. 5 after Isabella allegedly told a male sous chef to sleep with her. The lawsuit was initially filed in D.C. Superior Court on March 19, but her lawyers dismissed that suit to file a new one in federal court. The expanded suit alleged that Isabella’s company retaliated against employees for speaking up against sexual harassment and used nondisclosure agreements to ensure their silence. Each breach of the NDA, copies of which were provided to The Post, carried a $500,000 penalty, according to the complaint. Katz sought to have the NDAs voided in the lawsuit.  Isabella has not yet responded to questions about whether the NDAs are enforceable. Katz declined to comment.

[Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?]

The Post spoke with 25 former employees, current employees and others who described rampant misconduct in the company. Employees of the Richmond Graffiato alleged that their chef, Matthew Robinett, humiliated a woman using the restroom and said “nice vag,” short for vagina, to female employees. Two Denver wine sales representatives who took a wine trip to Spain with Isabella alleged that he poured water on a woman because she was wearing a white dress, and goaded a man into kissing one of the women without her consent. A woman traveling on a train who happened to be seated near Isabella and recognized him from television said she overheard him speaking about one of his employees, allegedly saying that he had been “looking for a way to get rid of her anyway, because she’s so fat and ugly — nobody wants to look at her.” The woman on the train said she also heard Caras say she was planning to freeze her eggs and heard Isabella respond that “he would be happy to fertilize them for her the old-fashioned way.”

Isabella denied all the allegations, saying they were “false, petty, and lack context. I want to be clear: We do not condone the hostile work environment implied in these allegations,” he said in a previous statement.

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